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Picnic Is No Party In the New Basra

As she walked out the gate, a second blow to the back of her head almost knocked her unconscious. Two weeks later, she is still wearing a neck brace, and her vision is blurred. She has numbness in one hand and suffers severe headaches.

At about that time, students said, a militiamen struck an unveiled 21-year-old, Zeinab Faruq, with a stick. Another accosted a couple, they recalled. The militiaman fired two shots at the legs of 22-year-old Muhsin Walid; another shot grazed Walid's hand.


Mohammed Musabah, Basra's newly appointed governor, has said of students' grievances, "The issue is settled." (Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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Sinan Saeed, 24, a husky mechanical engineering student, described seeing one girl run toward the exit, then seeing a man stumble over her. Both were beaten with sticks and cables as they lay on the ground. Some surged through the gate; others tried to clamber over the chain-link fence, Saeed said. At the exit, militiamen slapped students with one hand, gripping their pistols in the other.

Students accused the men of stealing cell phones, cameras, gold jewelry and tape players as the students left.

"They focused on the women," said Saeed's friend, Osama Adnan. "They were beating them viciously."

"Without any discrimination," Saeed added.

Within half an hour, the fracas had ended. University officials said 15 students were seriously injured. The militiamen detained about 10 students, who were taken to the local office of the Sadr movement before being released that evening. By all accounts, police were present in force but did not intervene. The students insist that the police were cowed by Menshadawi, one of the two clerics.

One student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled Menshadawi shouting, "There is no secular government! There is only the government of the Mahdi Army!" as he stood on some park steps brandishing a stick and a pistol.

In the Sadr movement's office, Heidar Jabari acknowledged excesses but defended the action. "There was a mistake in our execution, but we had the right to intervene," he said.

Tall, with a friendly demeanor, Jabari said he had warned students two days before the incident that the picnic was inappropriate. Shiites were still observing the sacred month of Muharram, he said, and a suicide bomb had recently killed 125 people in the southern city of Hilla. "The blood from there was still fresh," he said. "No one listened to us."

Jabari conceded that students were hurt and the beatings "went beyond what was legitimate." But, he added, "They say freedom means they can do what they want. This is not freedom. Freedom does not mean you can transgress traditions." He spoke calmly but with clerical sternness. "There are traditions and rules in an Eastern society that are different from a Western society. Every Iraqi has a right to act against these transgressions."

To bolster their case, the movement, one of Basra's most powerful, released a video of footage it had gathered of the picnic. It distributed it to local stores, which in turn sold it for about $1.

The images were relatively tame, even by Basra's conservative standards. Men are shown dancing. In the most exuberant moment, one dancer ties a scarf around his waist and swivels his hips. A man pushes a woman on a swing.

"At a wedding party, they do a lot more than that," said Saleh Najim, the dean of the engineering college.


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